The waiting is nearly over and the big moment will soon be upon us: European basketball's grandest showcase takes place in Vitoria-Gasteiz this weekend and there will be plenty for fans from all over the continent to enjoy both on and off the court. Let's look ahead to the highlights.
Local derby gets the ball rolling
The 2019 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four will get underway with crosstown rivals Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul and Anadolu Efes Istanbul tipping off their semifinal showdown at Fernando Buesa Arena. The opening game could well unfold as primarily a battle between Efes's offense and Fenerbahce's defense.
Ergin Ataman's team has produced a series of explosive performances throughout the season, scoring 85.4 points per game behind dazzling backcourt play from Vasilije Micic, Shane Larkin, Rodrigue Beaubois and Kruno Simon, who delivered a combined average of more than 40 points per game. Efes loves playing at a fast tempo and keeping the ball moving, but will have a tough task achieving that against a Fenerbahce team which bolstered Zeljko Obradovic's reputation for defensive excellence by allowing just 74.6 points per game – fewer than any other team – during the regular season.
Fenerbahce is struggling with injuries, with Joffrey Lauvergne and Gigi Datome definitely out while Nikola Kalinic and Jan Vesely are doubtful. But the defensive discipline instilled by Obradovic will remain unchanged regardless of which players are on the floor and Efes will have to work harder than ever to find its rhythm and create good shots.
Can red-hot De Colo overcome returning Llull?
The other semifinal will present a familiar sight as reigning champion Real Madrid squares off with CSKA Moscow for the third consecutive Final Four: CSKA won the Third Place Game in Istanbul a couple of years ago before Real prevailed in last season's semifinal. This season’s meetings were both taken by CSKA, which gained an 88-93 victory in Madrid in November and another narrow win, 82-78, in Round 22 in Moscow.
Defeating a top-quality team like Real three times in a row is no easy mission, but CSKA's quest will be helped by one of the hottest performers of the playoffs: Nando De Colo was sensational in the series against KIROLBET Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz, netting 28 and 27 points in the decisive road wins in Games 3 and 4, so he'll certainly feel comfortable returning to Fernando Buesa Arena on Friday.
On the other side of the ball, Real will hope the threat posed by De Colo can be matched by its own superstar leader, Sergio Llull. The 2017 EuroLeague MVP was unable to appear in the playoffs against Panathinaikos OPAP Athens due to injury, before returning for four Spanish League games in the build-up to the big event. But Llull wasn't at his best in those games, shooting 3-of-18 from three-point range, and the question of whether he can recover his top form could be crucial.
Who will take the MVP crown?
A night after the semifinals, the winner of the competition's most prestigious individual prize will be announced at the annual awards ceremony, which culminates with the crowning of this season's MVP. The list of contenders contains two players from Fenerbahce: Kostas Sloukas has earned the first All-EuroLeague nomination of his glittering career, while Jan Vesely topped the performance index rating charts out of all players competing at the Final Four. CSKA's Will Clyburn also presents a strong case after averaging 13.2 points and 6.9 rebounds – the only player to rank in the top 10 in both of those categories this season.
That trio has been joined in the All-EuroLeague First Team by two players who will not be playing in the Final Four: Panathinaikos backcourt general Nick Calathes smashed his own record for the most assists in a single season (a total of 286, 8.7 per game), while Brandon Davies led Zalgiris Kaunas's charge into the playoffs with 14.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Whatever the decision, one thing is for sure: with none of the five nominees having won before, we will have a brand-new EuroLeague MVP on Saturday night.
Final Four fun in Vitoria-Gasteiz
The awards ceremony is just one of the many activities taking part away from Fernando Buesa Arena this week and most of them are open to the public at no expense. There will be plenty to enjoy at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague FanZone, located in the beautiful heart of Vitoria-Gasteiz at three adjacent central squares: Plaza España, Plaza de la Virgen Blanca and Plaza de los Fueros. The fun starts at 1100 local time on Friday morning with a One Team session and Ambassadors Game and continues throughout the weekend with three-on-three games, slam dunk contests, special appearances by players and much more.
Another big attraction for all basketball fans is the chance to watch the Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament, which will see the continent's best eight Under 18 teams battle for the chance to appear in the Final at Fernando Buesa Arena on Sunday. Group games take place at Polideportivo Mendizorrotza in downtown Vitoria-Gasteiz between 900 and 1700 on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and entry is free of charge.
Milestones for the champs
So, who will be crowned champion of the 2018-19 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague? We will find out after Sunday's championship game at Fernando Buesa Arena and whoever comes away with the trophy there will also have some significant milestones to celebrate.
Real Madrid, for starters, is aiming to win back-to-back trophies for the first time in more than half a century, having last done so in 1967 and 1968, while Pablo Laso can become only the seventh coach to win three EuroLeague titles. That list, of course, is led by Zeljko Obradovic and victory on Sunday night would give the Fenerbahce boss his 10th European crown.
Obradovic's backcourt leader Kostas Sloukas will be hoping to extend his remarkable semifinals record after going 6-0 in the last seven years. Then h will try to become the only active player with four EuroLeague titles. That feat can also be matched by his former Olympiacos teammate Kyle Hines, while Hines or Sloukas could become just the third player to win the competition multiple times with two different teams – only Dino Meneghin (Varese, Milan) and Fausto Bargna (Cantu, Milan) have done that in the past.
Efes, of course, is looking to become European champion for the very first time and it would also be the first EuroLeague title for coach Ergin Ataman and all his players – Bryant Dunston and Vasilije Micic are the only two Efes players to have appeared in a Final Four before: Dunston helped Olympiacos reach the 2015 championship game, and Micic finished in third place with Zalgiris last year.